wisdom to win

 Wisdom to Win
search bar left
search bar right

Thirteen Days - Leadership and EthicsThirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics


Thirteen Days (2000)


Famous for...

Its chilling portrayal of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 during John F. Kennedy’s presidency (pictured right below during the crisis).Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

A nuclear war was narrowly averted over the Russians putting nuclear missiles in Cuba.

The film was largely accurate, although it was incorrect to say that the military chiefs were unanimously in favour of war.


Based on...

Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s 1997 book, The Kennedy Tapes.

 Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics


Roger Donaldson (pictured right).




 Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

Key characters

John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), American president.

Robert F. Kennedy (Steven Culp), his brother and top advisor.

Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), the president’s chief political adviser (pictured right).


The story

The crisis begins on October 16, 1962, when John F. Kennedy (JFK) is shown aerial photographs of the Russians (led by Nikita Krushchev) moving nuclear missiles into Cuba that would be capable of killing 80 million Americans.Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

To deal with the crisis, JFK sets up a Special Executive Committee (Ex-Comm) including:

  • his brother (Robert F. Kennedy ).
  • his chief political adviser (Kenny O'Donnell, pictured right with Robert Kennedy). 
  • Dean Rusk (the Secretary of State).
  • Robert McNamara (the Defence Secretary).
  • the military chiefs (who all support air strikes on Cuba).

JFK (pictured right below):Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

  • orders only a naval blockade of Cuba.
  • realizes that any military escalation could lead to a nuclear war.
  • makes a television broadcast describing the gravity of the situation.

Fortunately Commander Ecker doesn’t reveal that his plane was shot at in a reconnaissance flight over Cuba (after being told to do so by Kenny O'Donnell).

There is also great relief when Russian ships turn around and refuse to break the blockade.

Keenly aware of the importance of world opinion, JFK uses a televised United Nations (UN) meeting to gain sympathy for the American position.Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

America’s UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson (pictured right).

  • asks Russia’s ambassador to confirm its building of Cuban missile sites.
  • uses aerial photographs as evidence.

The Russian refuses to reply.

A Russian tanker near the blockade refuses an American request to stop. In contravention of JFK’s order that no shots must be fired without his authorization, Admiral George Anderson orders the firing of flares over the tanker.Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

JFK’s Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara (pictured right), is furious and tells Admiral Anderson to stop immediately.

American intelligence then reveals that the Russian missiles in Cuba are becoming operational.

On October 27 an American spy reconnaissance pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, is killed and shot down over Cuba.

In response JFK orders an air strike against Cuba for October 29, unless the Russians agree to remove their missiles.

After JFK secretly agrees to withdraw nuclear missiles from Turkey, the Russians announce on radio on Sunday October 28 that they are:

  • dismantling their Cuban missiles.
  • bringing them back to Russia.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is over, and nuclear war has been avoided, as the world held its breath in the face of total destruction.

JFK dictates a letter of condolence to Major Anderson's parents.


Lessons for leadership and ethics

1. Listen, ask questions and analyze the options

In a crucial meeting of the Executive Committee (pictured right), JFK:Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

  • only asks questions and listens (to the pro-war views of the military chiefs).
  • doesn’t make a decision or reveal his views.

This has two vital benefits:

  • encouraging people to give their honest and independent opinions rather than copy JFK’s.
  • a more effective debate about the pro’s and con’s of each policy option.


2. Learning, consultation and teamwork

JFK immediately set up the Executive Committee to benefit from the expertise of his top military and political advisers.

He learned from his disastrous support for the 1961 CIA invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, when he consulted only a few people.


3. Fools rush inThirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics


  • doesn’t make a knee-jerk reaction to Russia’s aggression.
  • gives the Russians two days to back down after the killing of the reconnaissance pilot, Major Anderson.

JFK has enormous courage and nerve to resist demands for military action.

He supports a blockade of Cuba rather than immediate bombings.

 Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

4. People come first

JFK’s primary concern is to save the world from nuclear war and total destruction. He succeeds because he seeks a diplomatic, not military, solution.


5. The buck stops here

JFK is ultimately responsible for America’s security.

He makes the final decisions, based upon:

  • his own judgement
  • all relevant advice (see point 6) and information (particularly photographic evidence of Russia's missiles in Cuba that wins worldwide support at the United Nations).


6. Negotiate from strength based on good adviceThirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

JFK's reaction to the missiles had to send a strong message to the Russians without provoking war.

He sacrifices the missiles in Turkey (that were ageing anyway) as a bargaining ploy to allow the Russians to withdraw from Cuba without losing face.

JFK wanted a win-win situation for both sides, so that (as he said after the crisis):

“It was just as much a victory for them, as it was for us”,

This idea came from his UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, a good example of JFK's willingness to take advice from his political and military allies (like Robert Kennedy and Kenny O'Donnell) and even opponents. 

 Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

7. Know your enemy

JFK gathers as much information as he can about the Russian leader, Nikita Krushchev, and rightly gambles that he doesn’t want war.


  • empathizes with his position.
  • realizes he is under just as much pressure from the Russian military to attack.


8. Leaders need luckThirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

JFK is lucky that:

  • Admiral Anderson’s aggression at the blockade didn’t lead to war.
  • Commander Ecker didn’t reveal that his reconnaissance plane was shot at.


9. Be tough but tender

JFK shows resolute toughness against the Russians, faced by the possibility of nuclear war.

But he also shows great kindness, when he writes a letter of condolence to the parents of the killed spy pilot, Major Anderson.

 Thirteen Days - Leadership and Ethics

10. Act with aims

On discovery of the missiles, Robert Kennedy volunteers to co-ordinate and initiate America's response through the Special Executive Committee.

JFK reminds him that action needs aims:

“We've got to figure out what we're going to do before we worry how we're going to do it”.


Key quote on ethics

Men of good will. That’s all there is between us and the devil, Kenny O’Donnell.


Key quote on leadership

There’s something immoral about abandoning your own judgement, JFK.


Key quotes on negotiating

We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked, Dean Rusk, Secretary of State (on Russian ships turning away from the naval blockade of Cuba).

I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over!, Adlai Stevenson (to the Russian UN ambassador about the building of Cuban missile sites).

It was just as much a victory for them, as it was for us, JFK (after resolving the crisis)


Key quote on strategy

We've got to figure out what we're going to do before we worry how we're going to do it, JFK


Key quote on war

We do what they want us to do, there's none of us is going to be alive to tell them they were wrong, JFK (about the military chiefs' support for nuclear air strikes).

 Appeasement only makes the aggressor more aggressive, Dean Rusk


Two film websites to recommend

1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).

2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)

Free Newsletter
Enter your name and e-mail address to receive our free newsletter with analysis of business issues and new business books